Head of Special Collections & University Archives, Jessica Ritchie, has prepared this helpful beginner’s guide to reading sheet music. And, as always, archives staff is ready to answer any additional questions you may have!
Sheet music is used as a record of, a guide to, or a means to perform, a piece of music. Sheet music can be studied to create a performance and to illuminate aspects of the music that may not be obvious from the act of listening. In addition to final published works, composers often retain hand-written or electronically produced records of the composition process. Authoritative musical information about a piece can be gained by studying the written sketches and early versions of compositions, as well as the final autograph score and personal markings on proofs and printed scores.
Modern sheet music comes in a variety of different formats. If a piece is composed for just one instrument or voice, the whole work may be written or printed as one piece of sheet music. If an instrumental piece is intended to be performed by more than one person, each performer will usually have a separate piece of sheet music, called a part, to “read.” Publication of works requiring more than four performers usually include several parts, though invariably a full score is published as well. The sung parts in a vocal work are not usually issued separately today, although this was historically the case before music printing made sheet music widely available.
Music is usually written on manuscript paper, sometimes known as staff paper. A grand staff includes lines that will contain all of the notation necessary for reading a piece of music. Manuscript paper is preprinted with staves ready for musical notation. It can appear in many different variations based on the type of music, score, or instrumentation.
Most sheet music will include the title of the piece and who should be credited for creating and/or arranging the piece. The creator of the piece is known as the composer. An arranger is someone who has re-conceptualized a previously composed work. This information is usually found at the top of the first page of the sheet of music.
The title of the piece is usually typed or written in large font on the top, center of the first page. The composer name and dates are usually in smaller font off to one side closer to the top of the first staff. If someone has arranged the piece, that information will be included in the credits as well. Some music publications will include this information on a separate title page. The information on a score or piece of music may be written in several different languages. The most common languages for pieces of music are English, German, French, and Italian. If the sheet music is a part of a composer’s collection of personal papers and manuscripts, the composer may not write his/her name on manuscript. Based on handwriting and other clues, one can infer that it was written by the creator of the collection.
The tempo of the piece (how fast or slow) is usually found on the left-hand side above the first staff. The tempo marking can also serve as the title of individual sections, also known as movements, of a piece of music. Sometimes this information will need to be recorded if the piece of music only contains one movement. Tempo markings are usually always written in Italian (or English for more modern pieces), even if the rest of the markings are written in a different language. Sometimes the tempo marking will include a number, which does not need to be recorded.
Composers will often indicate instructions for how to perform the piece under the tempo marking, i.e. “molto staccato,” which translates to “very sharply played.” These are instructions to the musicians about how to play the piece, and are not necessary information.
Tempo markings are usually written in Italian (or English in more contemporary compositions). When recording the language of a musical work, use the language of the lyrics, title or credits rather than the tempo. You may also ignore the ‘directions” listed under the tempo, which are also usually written in Italian or English.
The Title and credits are included at the top of the first page. This is a movement, or section, from the Ballet Sylvia.
Symbols and special markings provide crucial information for both musical performance and study. Here are some common symbols and markings seen on sheet music:
When the separate instrumental and vocal parts of a musical work are printed together, the resulting sheet music is called a score. Conventionally, a score consists of musical notation with each instrumental or vocal part in vertical alignment. The term score has also been used to refer to sheet music written for only one performer. The distinction between score and part applies when there is more than one part needed for performance
Scores come in various formats, as follows:
Beethoven's famous Symphony reduced to a simple piano version
An entire work by Wagner condensed to its basic elements to fit on one page
A part is a strand or melody of music played by an individual instrument or voice (or group of identical instruments or voices) within a larger work. The individuals in a string quartet do not read from a score while playing, because it would be too difficult for them to see their notes and they would have to turn pages constantly. Instead, each instrument’s line is taken out of the score and printed separately so that the musician can read their own part.
Violin I Part for Haydn Quartet in F Major. String quartets usually feature two violins with two different parts. This is the part for the first violin, also known as Violin I.
When making a container list or describing a piece of music, you will need to record the information in the credits (composer and/or arranger), the title, the year (when available), the language, and instrumentation (or score). Sometimes, if you only have one movement or section from a larger piece of music, you will record that information as well.
The information is recorded this way so that it will be discoverable by musicians. When musicians search for a piece of music, they look for the name of the composer first, followed by the title of the complete work, then the movement/section/song and the rest of the information.
Note: Classical music tempo markings are usually in Italian, even if the rest of the information is written in a different language. Record the language that you see used for the title and/or the credits as the main language.
Example: Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Don Giovanni. Finch' han dal vino. German. Arranged for voice and keyboard